The benefits of hiking are numerous. There’s the obvious: Daily cardio is highly beneficial, and hiking does a good job of getting the heart pumping, particularly if your route features appreciable grade. Even hiking on level ground is good for your heart, though. People who get more exercise in general are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and several other serious diseases.
There are also less obvious reasons to enjoy hiking. To the extent that it gets you out-of-doors and exposes you to nature, there may be additional, hidden benefits. Examples include lower blood pressure, reduced levels of inflammation markers, and even better mood. Tantalizing research suggests it even boosts immune system activity.
Just breathing forest air may lower blood pressure appreciably, possibly due to the body’s reaction to aromatic compounds released by certain trees. Evergreens, in particular, appear to possess essential oils that we associate with the heady scents of pine, spruce, and cedar. These bracing scents evidently coax blood pressure down.
Even better, time spent in forests—but not urban settings—has been shown to decrease levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, as well as numerous markers of inflammation. That’s telling, because inflammation is believed to underlie many of the most troubling diseases of modern life, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and even cancer. No wonder the time-honored practice of hiking in forests—charmingly known as “forest bathing”—is experiencing a resurgence in Japan. In fact, the Japanese think of forest bathing not so much as hiking, but as “natural aromatherapy”.
From Rehab to Reconnection
Hiking can be an effective way to heal joints after replacement procedures, too. A study on older patients who had undergone total knee replacement showed that a 3-month guided hiking program after the procedure yielded better quality of life and “moderate improvement in functional abilities” compared to control patients who did not engage in the hiking rehabilitation program.
Scandinavians revere hiking. Several research papers have examined the benefits of the family hiking experience in Norway, for example. According to comments gathered from families hiking in Norway, “a hiking trip clears space for the family in their everyday lives, which is largely dominated by relations with non-family members at both work and leisure.” The family hike is seen as a way for families to reconnect and strengthen ties, while experiencing the centering effects of “being in the moment.” Interestingly, this is a goal of mindful meditation, another practice designed to focus the mind and instill calm.
Lower Inflammation and Better Mood
Another small study looked at the benefits of hiking downhill (but not uphill). Sedentary, yet healthy, men and women spent two months hiking downhill after riding a cable car to the top of a peak. They experienced significant drops in cholesterol levels, and evidence of better blood sugar handling status. They also experienced notable drops in levels of a key marker of inflammation in the body, C-reactive protein.
Another recent study on elderly patients with the lung disorder, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) showed marked differences in markers of inflammation, and mood, among patients assigned to spend time in an urban environment or a forest setting. The forest-visiting patients reported significant improvements in mood, and demonstrated significant drops in markers of inflammation. Spending equal amounts of time in the city did not yield these benefits.